International conflict over agricultural regulation continues after more than six years to threaten to destroy the whole Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (gatt), and with it an agreement that greatly extends corporate power relative to national (and public) power. Paradoxically, the deadlock has been caused by a type of national regulation of agriculture whose days are numbered. Even more paradoxically, Europe, cast as defender of the old ways, has committed itself to more basic domestic reform than the United States. Major changes have been initiated in the European Common Agricultural Policy which go further than anyone imagined possible at the outset of the Uruguay Round.footnote1 The choice is not between ‘regulation’ or ‘free trade’, therefore, but between new forms of implicit or explicit regulation.footnote

In and around the tangled web of national politics, European and North American integration, and international economic competition, new protagonists are taking shape. The contest over new rules and relations for food and agriculture also depends on transnational corporations and popular movements not formally present at the negotiations. Agricultural support programmes were put in place roughly half a century ago in response to farm politics. Since then, farms have become suppliers of raw materials within a transnational agrofood sector dominated by some of the largest, most technically dynamic corporations in the world. At the same time, urbanization and the rise of social movements expressing the concerns of consumers, environmentalists, and others, have shifted the focus from farm incomes to other interests.

In the long view, it is clear that the agricultural trade conflicts inside and outside the gatt are the culmination of longterm structural and inter-state changes. The rules implicitly governing agrofood relations were established in the years immediately after World War II and worked stably enough for nearly twenty five years to justify calling them a ‘food regime’. However, new relations were forged during that time, which by the early 1970s began to undermine the postwar system of food regulation.

In this article I analyse the rise of a food regime and the emergence of contradictory and conflictual relations within it. First, I define the food regime and its main features. In the second section, I describe the character of the food regime, including its internal tensions, between 1947 and 1973. In the third section I describe the emergence of new relations and new rules after the food crisis of 1972–73. To simplify the story of the regime and its crisis, in these sections I treat states, particularly the us, as integral actors.footnote2 In the final part of this essay, I explore the residual and emergent relations which make possible either a new regime, or the descent into deeper disorder.

The impasse in international economic relations is centred on agriculture because in the agro-food sector there exists the largest gap between national regulation and transnational economic organization. This gap is the legacy of the post-World War II food regime, the rule-governed structure of production and consumption of food on a world scale. The food regime was created in 1947 when alternative international regulation in the form of the proposal for a World Food Board was rejected.footnote3 At the gatt, the only clear positions are those which ‘decouple’ and ‘deregulate’ elements of a food regime that no longer works. The present alternatives for a new regime are not formally proposed. They must be teased out from analyses of the social forces involved in global agrofood restructuring.

The postwar food regime was governed by implicit rules, which nonetheless regulated property and power within and between nations. The food regime, therefore, was partly about international relations of food, and partly about the world food economy. Regulation of the food regime both underpinned and reflected changing balances of power among states, organized national lobbies, classes—farmers, workers, peasants—and capital. The implicit rules evolved through practical experiences and negotiations among states, ministries, corporations, farm lobbies, consumer lobbies and others, in response to immediate problems of production, distribution and trade. Out of this web of practices emerged a stable pattern of production and power that lasted for two and a half decades.

The rules defining the food regime gave priority to national regulation, and authorized both import controls and export subsidies necessary to manage national farm programmes. These national programmes, particularly at the outset us New Deal commodity programmes, generated chronic surpluses. As these played out, they structured a specific set of international relations in which power—to restructure international trade and production in one state’s favour— was wielded in the unusual form of subsidized exports of surplus commodities. In this way agriculture, which was always central to the world economy, was an exceptional international sector.